Picture yourself back in 2008.
The U.S. is 7 years into what would become a 20-year war in Afghanistan. Lehman Brothers just filed for bankruptcy. The real estate market collapsed. A small incubator in Google launched a beta version of a new product called "Chrome." iPhones were released to the public less than a year ago. Windows Vista is Microsoft's flagship product, and Internet Explorer 8 doesn't even exist yet.
Into that market, my brother Anton and I left the small startup we were a part of to start our own company. We were young and optimistic (and naive). We had a vision for online collaboration made simple using nothing but a browser; bringing people together, regardless of location, to work on their documents. No more emailing redlined Word documents, copies of PowerPoints with "please edit and return" or trying to merge Visio diagrams - we wanted to let people do it together. (Google was dabbling in this space, but nothing really stuck yet).
Given the state of the world wide web at the time, we realized we needed to first build an engine that would allow services to communicate asynchronously (a pub/sub engine), on which we could build our collaboration suite. Over the coming months, we built an engine that would go on to publish trillions of messages over more than a decade of usage, sold to hundreds of companies all over the globe. This became our first product, WebSync.
This was also our first mistake. We were so focused on building a collaboration platform that we didn't immediately want to go where the market was dictating, and where we saw high consumer interest--selling the streaming engine itself. I learned that when you feel a pull from customers, when people are willing to pay you for something, even if it's not the original product concept, it's time to consider a pivot.
At heart, Anton and I were engineers. We wanted to "build cool things," a desire I think is widely shared with engineers all over the world. Who doesn't want to build a collaboration platform that can process one hundred thousand messages per second per CPU core on a 2008 Best Buy Special PC? That's fun stuff!
The problem is that people don't always pay for cool technology. People pay for products that solve problems. In our case, we were solving a problem - our problem. Along the way, we found another problem, one whose solution was less cool, but for which we felt demand more quickly and definitively.
The good news is that there was enough of a market for this less cool solution that despite my lack of product understanding, we were able to get something on the market. Real-time streaming of text content at low cost on commodity hardware was interesting for other forward-looking companies. That let us get customers, who then engaged us to help them build their applications, giving us a revenue stream that we used to fund our next projects (more on those projects in another post).
The bad news is that we spent several early years scraping by on a few thousand a year in developer licenses (which seemed like a lot back then, to be fair) when we could have made a harder and faster pivot, properly evaluated how big of a problem the streaming engine was solving, determined how much people were willing to pay for a solution to this problem and, ultimately, invested in a more customer-focused product. We certainly would have made our lives a lot easier.
WebSync may not have been what we set out to create, but it was what we had and what people were willing to buy.
If you're reading this, chances are good that you are considering forming a startup, or maybe you have your own small business already and are trying to figure out how to take it to a new level. Take the challenge: look carefully at what you're building and really understand your customers. Are you really listening to the market?